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Interesting introduction to the writings of Eric Hobsbawm
on April 30, 2012
Discovering the work of Eric Hobsbawm is a type of liberation and always an exercise in deepening of one's knowledge and understanding.
In one paragraph, "How to Change The World: Reflections on Marx and Marxism" is a collection of essays offering, in "Part One", insightful introductions to the classic texts of Marx, Engels and Marxism and penetrating analysis of Marx's work on capitalistic development. In "Part Two" the reader is provided an historical analysis of the misfortunes of Marxism, (1) post-Marx 1880-1914 (chapter 10), (2) the resistance of Marxism to fascism from 1929-1945 (chapter 11), (3) the influence of Marxism from 1945-1983 (chapter 14), (4) Marxism's transformed influence from 1983-2000 during the resurgence of neo-liberal era (chapter 15), and the importance of Antonio Gramsci for contemporary social theory and political philosophy (chapters 12 and 13). The first and last chapters articulate, according to Hobsbawm, the importance of Marx and Marxism for the twenty-first century.
As a whole these articles are interesting and relevant, but how they present as book is more questionable. More curious is the title of the book, "How To Change The World." This title is curious for two reasons. First, nowhere in the collection is there political discussion of how to change the world. Second, and far more import, the seven decades of theoretical and historical work of Eric Hobsbawm may accurately be described as 'why capitalism successfully resists transformation.'
Hobsbawm is best well known for his four book history of European capitalism, "The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789-1848" (1962), "The Age of Capital: 1848-1875" (1975), "The Age of Empire: 1875-1914" (1987), "The Age of Extremes: the short twentieth century, 1914-1991" (1994). He also has made very important contributions to labor history, the emergence of nations, nationalism and tradition, Art within capitalism (especially Jazz), and historical analysis of "misfits" (my term not his) within capitalism historically. In many ways I like his work on "misfits" the best, "Primitive Rebels" (1959), "Bandits" (1969), and "Uncommon People" (1998).
Hobsbawm and his collaborators transformed the writing of economic history. He and several other Marxists founded the academic historical journal "Past and Present." Recently, an acquaintance of mine commented to me that it is a "shame" "Past and Present" is no longer Marxist. This is actually very misleading comment, because economic history has now so incorporated the lessons of Marxism, Marxism is no longer recognized as such. Hobsbawm was one of the leading voices in making historical Marxism mainstream. [One very brief example, Hobsbawm and his collaborators employed the dictum "history from the bottom, up." What this metaphor meant is that actual history happens mainly by the actions of "common people", while most accounts of history are written about kings, queens, generals, business leaders, and otherwise famous people. To write about George Washington, at the neglect of individuals carrying-out the Boston Tea party and other uprising is to misrepresent not only history, but George Washington himself. Howard Zinn's "A People's History of United States", and national bestseller, is a very famous and successful history in the historical tradition that Hobsbawm helped to establish and make mainstream.]
This current collection of essays under review epitomizes the very foundation of Hobsbawm and his collaborators approach to history. Namely, first rigorously understanding Marx and his insights, and not obscuring and exaggerating Marx for political advantage. Nearly all of these essays have been previously published, however, over half the book is either first published (two chapters) or here first published in English (six chapters).
Nonetheless, the newness of these articles is not the strength. Rather it is Hobsbawm's accurate and sober historical interpretations and penetrating knowledge of Marx and Marxism that offers the reader invaluable insights. The real aim of this collection of essays is, however, the importance of Marx and Marxism for the twenty-first century in light of the financial collapse of 2007-8. In the context of the financial crisis of 2007-8: "We have rediscovered that capitalism is not the answer but the question" (p. 417). Marx and classical Marxism helps us better understand what capitalism is, via a series of "introductions" to the classic works of Marxism (e.g. Engels' "Conditions of the English Working Class", Marx and Engels' "Communist Manifesto", Marx's "Grudrisse, and Gramsci's work more generally).
The importance of Marx, according to Hobsbawm, is that capitalism is structurally contradictory and hence crisis-ridden. "Once again it is evident that even between major crises, `the market' has no answer to the problem confronting the twenty-first century: that unlimited and increasingly high-tech economic growth in the pursuit of unsustainable profit produces global wealth, but at the cost of an increasingly dispensable factor production, human labour,, and one might add, of the globe's natural resources" (p. 419). Marx can help explain why.
Hobsbawm is insistent, however, that the classic texts of Marxism "cannot easily be used as handbooks to political action" because movements today and in the future "have little in common with those of Marx, Engels" and classical Marxism (p. 377). What Marx and classical Marxism have to offer is an understanding of what "capitalism" is. Contemporary global protests, including the "Occupy" movement in the U.S., are unambiguously anti-capitalist "though without any clear idea of capitalism" (p. 416). Thus, to understand the basis of capitalism in its historical emergence is important, for this we need Marx; and to understand how capitalism has periodically changed, without being fully transformed, we need Hobsbawm and his periodization of capitalistic development.
These essays help us better understand the current and New Age of Catastrophe (Terrorism, Wars, Global Protest, Financial Crises, Economic Recessions, etc. etc.) since 2001, these catastrophes not unique for capitalist history, but its norm.